Opinionista Greg Nicolson 4 March 2013

Vultures, cowards, capitalists – how we react to the horror

Few extra-judicial killings are as savage or public as the murder of Mido Macia. What’s scarier, though, is the reaction of our politicians, and ourselves.

Sitting in the Bree Street taxi rank on Sunday, the “moving coffins” wait, load and depart. The same brick walls smell like piss. I wonder if Mido Macia took his Daveyton taxi here, came through Bree Street. If he did, there’s no sign of it. Everything’s the same. Everything always seems the same. The drivers, exploited to the point of careening through town as through driving from war, come and go, as always.

Macia, 27, died last week. The Daily Sun cover was haunting. “MURDERED” screamed the headline, above a picture of Macia with his hands tied to the inside of a van. His face looked scared – caged. His knees were bent; his feet planted. His left arm covered part of the van’s number plate. “BR (arm) 924” it read. Above his elbow, on the vehicle, you could see the stripes of the SA Police Service.

It’s not the first and won’t be the last time the police inflict pain and humiliation on those they’ve sworn to protect. This time they were caught on camera. The video of Macia being dragged by the police vehicle has stolen the headlines from whatever tragedy went before it and whatever tragedy went before that.

It wasn’t long before our leaders danced with the press and served another round of crocodile tears. Zuma appoints the police commissioner and minister of police. What he says is published, discussed and scrutinised. He is head of a government that has a budget to run the country. He’s also president of the African National Congress, an organisation with over a million members. He has influence – but what is his response to such horror?

President Zuma issued a 97-word press statement through Mac Maharaj. His shock at the incident was pitiful. South Africa is suffering from a culture of impunity, and Macia’s death is the latest incarnation of a system where for some, rights are nothing more than words on a document. His death wasn’t politically motivated, like so many incidents of police brutality during Apartheid. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be hard for Zuma to sympathise. Macia was killed by a system that in practice does not afford certain people the rights of a citizen or the rights of a human.

Yet the savage extra-judicial killing only drew a 97-word public relations statement. It’s no more than sympathy card, sent without acknowledging to the system that created the situation for Macia’s death. That’s how the president uses his influence.

Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane was one of the first politicians on the scene in Daveyton. She visited Macia’s family – the rest are back in Mozambique – and assured them the province would fund his son for the year. Her effort was more touching, though still completely inadequate. It looks like an attempt to avoid a lawsuit, which the family in Mozambique wants to file.

Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega has been forced out of whatever shell she normally hides in to respond to the death. She expressed shock and outrage. Following the Internal Police Investigative Directorate’s arrest of the eight police officers involved, she suspended them and had their firearms taken. But what will she do beyond take the guns of killer cops? And would anyone listen to her comments, so detached from her responsibility as police commissioner they could have been written by a computer? It’s telling that even the Daveyton police station commander turned up in uniform to consult Macia’s family after Phiyega reportedly suspended her. No wonder – according to Phiyega, cops never get embarrassed.

The Democratic Alliance has tried to jump on the issue, visiting Daveyton on Sunday and calling for an inquiry. It might have seemed a nice gesture, but looked like just another visit in a drawn-out election campaign ahead of 2014. Where the ANC or state is involved in a crisis, the DA rolls in to speak to the affected, able to offer a more compassionate ear and fire salvos at the ruling party. But while South African bodies are violated en masse across the country, it is telling that the DA organised its largest mobilisation in 2012 to march on Cosatu House over the youth wage subsidy – yet it only drops in and out of the most horrendous issues.

The federation of trade unions is in the same boat. Cosatu and many of its affiliates issued the required press releases of shock and outrage at Macia’s death. But what is the largest organised grouping of labour doing to outlaw this culture of impunity that leads to police abuse? When will we see a rolling campaign against this abuse and the abuse of women, like the campaign Cosatu is waging against e-tolls?

If Macia’s death were an isolated incident, the response from our leaders, society and ourselves – you and I – might be called pathetic. But it’s not isolated. Things clearly have to change. Emailed outrage and wire press releases don’t cut it. While the country is dragged through the streets by our own cops (or men, if anyone still remembers Anene Booysens or the thousands like her) we don’t need fire extinguisher comments or electioneering.

We need solutions. We need answers. We need pressure. We need to show we won’t let anyone be treated like Mido Macia. Communities riot over municipal demarcations. Suburbs protest over parking fees. Yet the ultimate violations of the body, of a person’s rights and dignity, drop in and out of the news, our outrage yo-yoing with no real attempt to change the system.

Police officers used a state vehicle to drag a man through the streets and have been charged with his murder. If there was ever an incident primed to spark the mass riots leaders like Zwelinzima Vavi have been warning of, it’s this one. Instead, we’ve seen a small group protesting in Daveyton and the rest of us gasping in shock and horror while political leaders are allowed to escape unscathed, or even use the situation to their advantage.

Even the taxi ranks, where a brother has died while doing his job, are quiet. Everybody seems aghast at what’s happened, but no one feels they can do anything more than let the court case run its course while the cycle of abuse and impunity continue. What happened to Macia was despicable, a numbing tragedy showing all that can go wrong with power.

What’s scarier, though, is the reaction. We don’t feel we can do anything. Some of us don’t even care. DM

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